Torah Commands for Honoring Parents Vary — and Why

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Understanding everything in the Torah to be intentional, the sages of Jewish tradition, of course, had explanations as to why the command regarding parents is phrased differently in Leviticus than it is in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, each of which contain the Ten Commandments.

PARSHAT KEDOSHIM
LEVITICUS 17-26
This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, is part of what biblical scholars call “The Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26) — so named because of its repeated use of the word “holy.”
The third verse of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:3) instructs: “You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My Sabbaths: I the Lord am your God.” Not surprisingly, in a chapter that echoes the Ten Commandments, we’re commanded to revere our parents and to keep the Sabbath.
What is surprising, however, is the way that the command regarding parents is worded.
First of all, rather than using the word kabed (from the word kavod, meaning “honor”), the word used in the Ten Commandments in regard to parents, a different word, tira’u (from the word yirah, meaning “reverence” or “fear”), is used in Leviticus. Secondly, whereas the Ten Commandments instruct us to “Honor your father and your mother,” in Leviticus the order of the parents is reversed, with “mother” mentioned before “father.”
Understanding everything in the Torah to be intentional, the sages of Jewish tradition, of course, had explanations as to why the command regarding parents is phrased differently in Leviticus than it is in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, each of which contain the Ten Commandments.
The medieval French commentator Rashi taught that the mother is mentioned first in Leviticus regarding “reverence/fear” because it’s more natural for a child to “revere/fear” their father than their mother, whereas the father is mentioned first in the Ten Commandments because it’s more natural for a child to “honor” their mother than their father.
Regardless of whether I think that Rashi’s explanation regarding kavod (honor) and yirah (reverence/fear) in respect to mothers and fathers is still relevant in today’s world — a world in which the roles of mothers and fathers are much more equal in many families, and a world in which it’s not uncommon for families to be headed by two mothers, two fathers or a single parent — I appreciate his insight regarding this important command, and his drawing our attention to the Torah’s teaching that respect for parents involves both “honor” and “reverence.”
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that “reverence” and “honor” had very specific meanings. According to the rabbis: “‘Revere’ means that a child must neither stand in his father’s place nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him. ‘Honor’ means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover him and lead him in and out.” (BT Kiddushin 32a-b) Halacha (Jewish law) has fleshed out the meaning of these two terms in detail.
But notably, though we’re commanded in this week’s Torah portion to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), we’re never commanded to “love” our parents. There’s a recognition that the relationship between parents and children can be especially complex, and it would be futile to mandate the emotion of love. However, by giving us concrete examples of what it means to “revere” and “honor” parents, the Talmud mandates specific action in regard to parents, regardless of what emotion one may feel.
In today’s world, where many Jewish children have one parent who didn’t grow up Jewish (and that parent either still isn’t Jewish, or perhaps they’ve converted to Judaism), it’s important for those of us in the liberal Jewish world to seriously contemplate not just what it means for children to “honor” and “revere” their parents, but what it means for the Jewish community to “honor” and “revere” parents who didn’t grow up Jewish.
In 2016, it’s not enough for a synagogue or Jewish organization to simply say that “interfaith families are welcome;” rather, concrete actions must be taken to show these parents — who’ve given up the opportunity to raise their children in the religion in which they grew up and which their family still practices — that we “honor” and “revere” them.
These actions can include (but are certainly not limited to): revisiting synagogue policies regarding participation of relatives who aren’t Jewish in lifecycle events, such as baby namings and B’nai Mitzvah; participating in “Interfaith Family Month” in November and having a service or program to express gratitude to members of the community who didn’t grow up Jewish; offering specific programming for interfaith families and space for safe, open discussion among members of the community who didn’t grow up Jewish; training professional and lay leaders, religious school and preschool teachers and organizational staff on “best practices” for working with interfaith families.
By acting to truly “honor” and “revere” all of the parents — and all of the families — in our midst, we can bring more holiness to our community and our world.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and the spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai in Northeast Philadelphia.

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